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Poetry is an oral as well as written tradition, and we are only doing half the work—and having half the fun— if we silently read a poem on the page. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the chance to emphasize this enough in the classroom. As I struggle for both depth and breadth in my courses, I often run out of time before I can focus on the performance of poetry.


At least a few times during the semester, though, I create opportunities for students to engage with the performance of written texts. This might seem like an optional activity that doesn’t have the substance of a lecture or in-depth discussion, but I would disagree. In fact, in-class recitations can generate real excitement among students, in part because memorization requires a slow, attentive reading that we wish for every time we assign a new text.


With this in mind, I recommend the Shakespeare Sonnet Slam as a classroom activity. In an English literature survey we spend a couple of classes reading sonnets by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but because these sonnets represent one small unit out of many in a survey course, that’s about all the time we have for The Bard’s sequence. Even so, the memorization requires students to read their poem with a quality of attention that they wouldn’t ordinarily have. Even if our activity means that we get to spend less time discussing other poets, students quickly understand the power of a poetic sequence, and how it can convey a variety of emotional and intellectual struggles in innovative ways.


Here’s how it works:

  1. First, I ask students to memorize one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. If students are anxious about the process of memorizing a poem, I offer them several strategies: they can write the poem, longhand, several times until they get a sense of how the lines fit together; they can photocopy the poem and carry it with them, memorizing it throughout the week; or they can memorize the poem by reciting it once through, then hiding the final word of the poem and reading it through, then hiding the final two words of the poem and reading it through, and so on until they’re reciting the poem with no words exposed.
  2. Once students have memorized their poem, the next task is understanding. In order for them to deliver Shakespeare’s lines with emotional accuracy, they have to attend to his sonnet logic: the turn that occurs, usually in the final couplet; the if/then structure that Shakespeare relies on to create tension in many of his poems; and the rhetorical strategies of his poems, whether they be blazons, anti-blazons, complaints, or poems of praise. I remind students that they have to make the language come alive so that anyone who listens will be deeply moved. With as many as twenty-five students in a class or discussion section, this can be quite challenging, but I’ve found that my students are so engaged with this challenge that they’re willing to extend the slam over two class meetings. I also recommend that they go to Poetry Out Loud for some advice on reciting well.
  3. When students recite their poems in class, they must also be prepared to talk about what they learned as a result of the process. They can talk about the narrative situation of the poem, the way Shakespeare relies on inherited wisdom from Erasmus, the Bible, or his contemporaries, or anything else that they think could be valuable to our understanding of the poem as a whole.


Each student takes about 3-4 minutes for their total performance. In the past, I’ve sometimes asked colleagues to be the “judge” for the slam; other times, I’ve relied on students as the judges. The judges are allowed to award two prizes: one for exceptional recitation, and one for exceptional explication. Of course, one student could potentially receive both prizes. If you’re looking for a way to engage your students, try this exercise; if you already do something similar in your survey courses, please respond to this blog entry.


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 10-4-11.]]

David Eshelman

Material Realities

Posted by David Eshelman Expert Jul 13, 2016

Unlike print-based genres—poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction—the dramatic genres, such as playwriting, are allied to certain material realities.  By this I mean that what is mentioned in a script is not just for a reader’s mind, but is meant to be concretized before an audience’s eyes.  I find myself frequently noting on drafts of student scripts that particular stage directions sound “expensive,” and I don’t mean this as a positive comment.  I use this word to discourage writers from including elements that would make staging difficult—for example, impossible special effects and overly frequent scene changes.  In a similar vein, I ask student authors to remember that acting is paid labor.  Frequently, beginning playwrights will include a character—often a waiter—who does very little.  In the professional theatre, the actor playing this character would have to be compensated for his or her work.  Therefore, inclusion in the script means an added expense, and if it’s not a meaningful expense, there’s no reason for it.


What’s more, wasteful writing can mean not just a waste of monetary resources, but a waste of performer time.  To return to the waiter example, a playwright in a university setting could likely find a fellow student willing to play a minor role without compensation—meaning that the inclusion of a peripheral character would not increase expense in this case.  However, I ask writers to also take into account the performer’s perspective.  While student actors might be willing to play small roles, the truth is that no one wants to sit through weeks of rehearsal for a part that ultimately isn’t all that meaningful. A small part is one thing, a small and wholly insignificant part is quite another.  Therefore, ethically, the playwright should cut the role or make it worthwhile; otherwise, she or he is wasting someone’s (unpaid) time.


Material realities have even greater significance when they illuminate larger issues of artistic representation.  Cultural prejudices, for example, exist everywhere; but it is easier to see their consequences in the dramatic arts.  As I remind students, acting is one of the only jobs where employers can legally include sex, age, and race as hiring considerations—even though these categories are subject to legal protections elsewhere.  Because scripts create work for actors, I remind my students that, with each role that they write, they are potentially creating or denying work for another human being—and often doing so along race-based, sex-based, and age-based lines.  In other words, since each role potentially puts food on someone’s table, playwrights must not ignore their responsibilities to society. If the roles they create put food only on the tables of young white males, I encourage them to at least be aware of the exclusions they’re building into their creative work.


Just as the stage concretizes the text, so the field of dramatic writing concretizes the problems of representation that all creative writers face (or should be facing). In playwriting, it is harder to ignore one’s ethical responsibilities because they are so apparent.  A print-based writer knows in theory that she or he should not create characters that conform to offensive stereotypes.  The playwright, however, must understand that, when she or he creates such a role, she or he must essentially look another human being in the eye and say, “You.  Be that.”


[[This post first appeared on LitBits on 3/30/12.]]

The other night, my wife and I accidentally got sucked into watching a Jersey Shore marathon. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s basically a high concept science fiction program that involves a group of grotesque orange aliens who derive sustenance from a diet consisting solely of hard liquor and whose highest form of compliment is to call someone a “Guido.” To be honest, the show is a little derivative of other science fiction shows that came before it—these aliens have the aggression of Klingons and the dull-witted brutality of the "toaster"-model Cylons.  My wife and I agreed that the show was stupid and a waste of our time, and we turned off the TV once we realized it was 3:30 in the morning and this marathon wasn’t going to be over anytime soon.


It’s as obvious as it is glib to point out that so-called “reality” television doesn’t resemble the world in which most of us actually live, but I worry that some people—and by some people, I mean some of my students—might mistake this manipulated footage and manufactured drama for something that resembles life on planet earth. Chuck Klosterman suggested in his essay “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite” that MTV’s The Real World fundamentally changed how young people relate to each other—“People started becoming personality templates,” Klosterman wrote, “devoid of complication and obsessed with melodrama.” Over the years, dozens of students have told me about auditioning for one reality show or another, and I could always tell which “type” they wanted to be—Sensitive Heterosexual Guy, Wild Party Girl, Intellectual-Yet-Approachable Black Dude.  The problem with reality television, really, is its tendency to reduce actual human beings into characters.  Static, superficial, underdeveloped characters at that.


This is why I like to teach creative nonfiction to undergraduates.  While some writers, like Phillip Lopate, suggest that a nonfiction form like the personal essay is more suited for middle-aged people (who are, presumably, prone to reflection), I believe that it’s important for students to examine and write about their lives.  I know the complaints about college students’ supposed self-absorption, and I feel like it’s lately become fashionable to bemoan our students’ interest in writing about their own lives.  The suggestion is that writing about the self—particularly the young self, the self who hasn’t experienced very much of the world—convinces students that they can be writers without taking risks that involve experiences, adventures, and other people.


I don’t subscribe to that theory.  To be sure, I don’t subscribe to the opposite theory, espoused by some composition scholars, that personal writing is good for students because they are already experts in their own lives.  I’ve met a lot of people in my life, and very few of them seemed to have much expertise when it comes to discussing themselves.


When I ask my college students to write nonfiction, I am asking them to disregard the superficial, melodramatic narratives that tend to pass for reality in our popular culture and, instead, dig deeper.  A show like Bad Girls Club or Road Rules traffics in abstraction and stereotypes, but in memoir and essay writing, we’re looking for the concrete, for the unique individual consciousness.  We’re stripping away the constructed persona and focusing instead on the person, with all of the complexity and contradictions that would be sure to get her application to live in the Jersey Shore beach house rejected.


Some of my students have become talented essayists and memoirists.  I’ve directed three phenomenal MFA theses concerned with post-traumatic stress disorder, the plight of undocumented immigrants, and growing up in an orphanage in the early 1960s.  I’ve seen students get accepted to Ph.D. programs and publish their work.  And while I take pride in whatever role I might have played in my students’ success, if I’m being honest, I have to tell you that I’m a little more proud whenever a student—through reading and writing creative nonfiction—achieves a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the world and himself.  It’s deeply gratifying to find out what happens when people stop being ridiculous caricatures, and start getting real.


[This post first appeared on LitBits on 11/30/11]